1984 (A new adaptation created by Robert Icke and Duncan MacMillan)
QPAC, Lyric Theatre
June 14 – 18
The Lyric Theatre filled with school groups for a 100 minutes long show with no intermission and complete lockout for its duration may not sound like a likely-to-work combination, but in the case of “1984”, experience of the show is so engrossing to the entire audience that none of these things matter. The new adaptation of one of the greatest dystopian novels ever written, George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four” speaks to more than a literary audience, offering topical warning against allowing ignorance to be truth, confirming the accuracy of its own (paraphrased) words that it doesn’t matter when it is read, it can always be applied to the future.
It begins with members of a bookclub meeting in cozy, timber-clad reading room to discuss an intriguing text. Then reality is fractured into the text’s storyline, where life for citizens in Airstrip One (formerly known as Great Britain), a province of the superstate Oceania in a world of perpetual war, is dictated by omnipresent government surveillance, overseen by the totalitarian party leader Big Brother. Protagonist Winston Smith (Tom Conroy) is a member of the outer party, working in the Ministry of Truth, which is responsible for propaganda and historical revisionism, to remove ‘unpersons’ from record.
Winston knows in his heart that the world in which he is living is monstrous. But giving voice to his thoughtcrimes, is another matter, especially if noting them in a diary, which is an individualistic, defiant act punishable by death. Risking everything, he begins a passionate relationship with Julia (Ursula Mills) who shares his loathing of the Party, until the Thought Police capture Winston along with Julia in their rented room and the two are delivered to the Ministry of Love for interrogation.
The initial differences from the source material at the outset may be ill-received by purists (this 1984 is defined by the creator’s interrogation of the novel’s structurally-important appendix), however any over-complication that this evokes is ultimately outweighed by the provocation of the renewed relevance of its themes. And by the time the audience bears witness to the daily Two Minutes Hate in which Party members must express their hatred for enemies of the stage, we are well and truly absorbed. While some aspects are initially overdone, like the overt foreshadowing on Winston’s psychopathological fear of rats, the production ultimately allows the audience to delve deeper into some of the novel’s central themes, while also allowing for appreciation anew of its simple yet eloquent language in show of how language shapes the way we think.
Staging is slick and impressively sophisticated, both visually and in execution of seamless scene changes as heavily armed police transform the quaint dwelling of early scenes to a hyper-real, highly evolved Matrix-like world of a white dimensionless, empty arena for torture. The soundscape, too, is startlingly loud, which suits the essential discomfort of the terror on show as we are asked to ‘imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever’.
Conroy is excellent as everyman Winston, conveying with clarity the complicated internal emotions of one at once confident in his self-assurance that 2 + 2 = 4 and intellectually able to reason about his resistance, to one who is later so broken-spirited as to be forced into betraying the only person he loves, by his torture in Room 101, the chamber in which the Party attempts to subject a prisoner to his or her own worst nightmare, fear of phobia. And Terence Crawford makes for an aptly-duplicitous O’Brien, a member of the Inner Party who poses as part of the counter-revolutionary resistance, The Brotherhood, made even more menacing in his unwavering calm and control than his power.
“The people will not revolt. They will not look up from their screens long enough to notice what’s happening,” George Orwell wrote, decades before the smart-phone world of today. And contemplation of its prophecy is what makes “1984” such essential viewing, given its demonstration of the terrifying possibilities of totalitarianism and suggestion that ideology is indeed present in the modern, western world. While certainly Australian audiences are privileged to experience an international touring production of such quality, its work is ultimately in its comments about the death of individuality (emphasised by the faceless figure on the program’s cover) and how rewriting the truth is but a step away from eradicating history.
Photos c/o – Shane Reid